“Give and take” is a refreshing new look on what it takes to succeed in a professional life. Books researching success usually end up being too heavy on the processes behind it or they zoom in into some desirable traits or habits that successful people display and were helpful for them.

Adam Grant looks into personality types based on giving and taking, selfless or selfish. Most of what makes that is usually nature rather than nurture, as most people are one or the other by default and unless extraordinary circumstances happen, they remain like that throughout their lives. As he explains in the book, there isn’t anything wrong with either of those types as it’s quite hard to shape someone into something that they are not. Especially since both types have equal chances in achieving success.

What the book focuses on is how they do it and what sets them apart. You wouldn’t be wrong in assuming takers usually have a much faster and easier (read: no guilt) journey in getting there. Adam Grant sets up to discover  if givers have the same potential and looks at a lot of winners that employed the giving strategy. He also found a lot of givers that are at the bottom of the barrel: people so selfless that everyone takes advantage of them. Truth be told, givers seem to be at both ends of the spectrum. So the question is: what makes a giver successful?

The story is of course a bit more complicated than the duality that you’d expect from the title. The book is packed with personal stories of very successful people that you definitely know (Green Day, Simpsons, George H W Bush) and also of plenty of referenced research that explain how people relate to both types.

One thing that he presents early in the book is the third type, the matcher. In a way, everyone shifts to being a matcher most times, as we strive to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting.

Giving, taking, and matching are three fundamental styles of social interaction, but the lines between them aren’t hard and fast. One will act differently when doing different actions, being a taker when negotiating a salary, a giver when mentoring someone and a matcher with your peers. Based on evidence though, a vast majority of people develop a primary reciprocity style.
Across occupations, it appears that givers are just too caring, too trusting, and too willing to sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others.

Adam Grant, the author, on Ted Talk. You can watch his presentation at the end of this post

It seems the worst performers and the best performers at the same time are givers; takers and matchers fall somewhere in the middle. The book tries to persuade us that we “underestimate the success of givers”. Some examples are very influential people, like David Hornik, an investor from Sillicon Valley creates value for himself while maximizing opportunities for value to flow outward for the benefit of others. David has been very successful in his trade and the entirety of people that he worked with will feel they owe most of their success for working with David in different stages of their lives.

Turns out successful givers are just as ambitious as takers or matchers. They have a different way of achieving their goals though, it turns out the givers who excel are willing to ask for help when they need it.

Another difference between success styles is that givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.

What makes a giver successful

The main drawback of being a successful giver type is the duration: it takes time for givers to build goodwill and trust, Adam Grant tells us, but eventually they establish reputations and relationships that enhance their success. A givers success can be plotted along a bell curve. “Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard dash, but it’s valuable in a marathon.”

What is the profile of a taker? – they want be admired by their superiors, so they charm and flatter and they turn into fakers. For them winning is a sum-zero game. The classic tell-tale sign of a taker is using first-person singular pronouns, since they tend to be self-absorbed. From the book: “self-glorifying images, self-absorbed conversations, and sizable pay gaps can send accurate, reliable signals that someone is a taker.”

Matchers are the karma police. Within groups or networks of people, people will punish takers by sharing reputational information about them: gossip being a widespread, efficient and low-cost form of punishment.

Matchers build smaller networks than givers or takers, since they will approach only those people that they think they can help them. Takers will constantly need to build networks to compensate for bridges burned in previous transactions – as they will try to influence things especially when it looks like they can take advantage of it. One of the big disadvantage of strict reciprocity that takers and matchers share is that over time it limits both the quantity and quality of their networks.

Strong ties and weak ties

Strong ties are the people in your circle of friends or family. Weak ties are the acquaintances. The problem with weak ties is that people don’t use them, even though those are the ones most likely to put is in contact with other networks (or leads – to different jobs, connections etc). One of the strengths of the giver is that they reconnect over time. Based on their reputation, this reconnecting works in their favor.

Dormant ties are similar in this case, intuitively you would assume dormant ties are dormant for a reason. But those people provide more novel information than the current contacts, as they were out of touch and exposed to new ideas and perspectives. “Dormant ties offer the access to novel information that weak ties afford, but without the discomfort” the author concludes.

One of the things I wasn’t a fan of from the stories he collected was glorifying the image of mindless work as something critical to a givers success. Some of the people he uses as examples were “first in the office, last to leave” type of people which is great but by no means necessary. The examples are sometimes unknown to anyone outside of that specific geographical location, even though we find stories about Green Day, George Bush, Simpsons or Sillicon Valley investors, I feel the givers presented had a rough road ahead before getting to that point.

This is, in a way, the conclusion of the book, for givers to be successful they need to focus more on who they give to. Some of their energy will be sucked by takers, sure, but overall they need to use judgement more than empathy. This sounds like a paradox, but Adam Grant makes an important distinction that differentiates between successful givers and unsuccessful ones: the emphasis they put on helping themselves.

Selfless givers are people with high other-interest and low self-interest. They give their time and energy without regard for their own needs and pay a price for it. If takers are selfish and failed givers are selfless, successful givers are otherish: they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.

You can find a lot of useful information on how to succeed regardless of your personality type – you can see the strengths and weakness and how others use them as well. It’s a very useful book on adjusting your personal brand and strategy accordingly.

Adam Grant is a top-rated professor at the Wharton (Business) School, in some rankings being one of the best in the world (No.1 according to some rankings, alongside Harvard). His newest book, “Originals: How Non-conformists Change the World” is also around behaviors and how they influence management, or should influence it. You can also watch below his Ted Talk for “Give and Take”: